The door at the end of your suffering, the most important thing to remember about your mother, the poetic science of how cicadas sing

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — how to tell love from desire, the Universe in Verse book, inside the creative process of beloved artists — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

The Wild Iris: Nobel Laureate Louise Glück on the Door at the End of Your Suffering

A handful of times a lifetime, if you are lucky, an experience opens a trapdoor in your psyche with its almost unbearable beauty and strangeness, its discomposing unlikeness to anything you have known before. Down, down you go into the depths of the unconscious, dark and fertile with the terror and longing that make for suffering, the surrender that makes for the end of suffering, not in resignation but in faith. It is then that the still, small voice of the soul begins to sing; it is then that the trapdoor becomes a portal into a life larger, truer, and more possible — a kind of rebirth.

Nobel laureate Louise Glück (April 22, 1943–October 13, 2023) captures the essence of such experiences, the way they sober us to being mortal and to being alive, with an image of piercing originality in the title poem of her 1992 collection The Wild Iris (public library).

THE WILD IRIS
by Louise Glück

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure sea water.

Couple with Ursula K. Le Guin on suffering and getting to the other side of pain, then revisit Glück’s love poem to life at the horizon of death.

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Each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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Nature’s Oldest Mandolin: The Poetic Science of How Cicadas Sing

“The use of music,” Richard Powers wrote, “is to remind us how short a time we have a body” — a truth nowhere more bittersweet than in the creature whose body is the oldest unchanged musical instrument on Earth: a tiny mandolin silent for most of its existence, then sonorous with a fleeting symphony of life before the final silence.

Each summer, cicadas arrive by the billions with their strange red eyes, their mysterious prime-shaped periodic cycles, and their haunting nocturnal emergence, sudden and synchronized. For years they have lived underground, soft milky-white nymphs nursed by endosymbiotic bacteria through their long helpless infancy. And then, as if by some divine signal, when the soil temperature reaches exactly 17.9 °C (64 °F), an obsidian exoskeleton encases their bodies in a flash to accompany them through the brief weeks of maturity as they rise from the underworld in singing search of a mate.

In consonance with pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s insistence that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” we now have a formula for predicting when this massive music festival of yearning will begin: E = (19.465 – t)/0.5136, where E denotes the emergence start date in May and t is the average April temperatures in Celsius.

By early June, they have all emerged, more of them than all the humans who have ever lived; by late July, they have all died.

Transformation of the periodical Cicada Septemdecim. Illustration by Lillie Sullivan, 1898. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

While annual cicada species cover the globe, periodical cicadas — the seven known species of the genus Magicicada, which emerge from the ground every 13 or 17 years in broods defined by geography and periodicity — are native only to North America. The English were staggered to encounter them when they first arrived. In 1633, the the governor of the young Plymouth Colony in New England marveled at the “numerous company of Flies which were like for bigness unto wasps or Bumble-Bees” that rose from the ground to feast on the trees and “made such a constant yelling noise as made the woods ring of them, and ready to deafen the hearers.”

Cicada by Edward Donovan, 1800. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Despite having no voice — no vocal chords, no lungs — cicadas are the loudest male chorus on Earth, their courtship serenades approaching the decibel level of a jet engine thanks to some of the most extraordinary acoustics in nature.

The body of a male cicada resembles a wood instrument. On each side of the hollow abdomen is a tymbal — a mesh of miniature ribs woven into a hard membrane, strummed whenever the singer flexes his synchronous flight muscles. Unlike locusts, which make sound by rubbing their legs against their wings and with which they were long conflated — it was only in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae that Linnaeus named the cicada as a different insect — cicadas sing the way humans do: with their whole body.

Art from A Monograph of Oriental Cicadidæ by William Lucas Distant, 1889. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Some find their music menacing, some mesmerizing. The Greeks considered it almost divine. When Pythagoras discovered the mathematics of harmony, a cicada sitting on a harp came to symbolize the science of music. Homer’s highest praise for orators was to compare them to cicadas. Anacreon, celebrated as the finest lyric poet of his civilization, reverenced them in verse:

Sweet prophet of summer, loved of the Muses,
Beloved of Phoebus who gave thee thy shrill song,
Old age does not wear upon thee;
Thou art earth-born, musical, impassive, without blood.
Thou art almost a god.

Epochs later, Lord Byron — poet laureate of the grandiose, otherwise blind to the grandeur of smallness — rhapsodized about these tiny “people of the pine” that “make their summer lives one ceaseless song.”

But no one has written more poetically about the biological reality of the cicada than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930) — the forgotten pioneer who planted the seed for the youth climate action movement by introducing nature study to school curricula at the dawn of the twentieth century, making wonder a public good.

Anna Botsford Comstock circa 1900

In 1903, Comstock wrote and illustrated Ways of the Six-Footed (public library | public domain) — a lyrical field guide to the world of insects, doing for entomology what Carl Sagan would do for astronomy two generations later. Celebrating the commonest male cicada of summer as the greatest of “the insect troubadours,” Comstock writes:

This musician… is an interesting-looking fellow, with a stout body and broad, transparent wings quite ornately veined… The cicada whose song is the most familiar to us is the “dog-day harvest-fly” or “Lyreman.” It resembles the seventeen-year species, except that it is larger and requires only two or three years in the immature state, below ground, instead of seventeen. The Lyreman when seen from above is black, with dull-green scroll ornamentation; below he is covered with white powder. He lives in trees; hidden beneath the leaves, this arboreal wooer sends forth a high trill, which seems to steep the senses of the listener in the essence of summer noons. If you chance to find a Lyreman fallen from his perch and take him in your hand, he will sing and you can feel his body vibrate with the sound. But it will remain a mystery where the musical instrument is situated, for it is nowhere visible to the uninitiated. However, if you place him on his back, you may see directly behind the base of each hind leg a circular plate, nearly a quarter of an inch in diameter; beneath each of these plates is a cavity across which is stretched a partition made up of three distinct kinds of membranes for the modulation of the tone; at the top of each cavity is a stiff, folded membrane which acts as a drumhead; but it is set In vibration by muscles instead of drumsticks, and these muscles move so rapidly that we cannot distinguish the separate vibrations. Thus, our Lyreman is provided with a very complicated pair of kettledrums, which he plays with so much skill that his music sounds more like that of a mandolin than of a drum.

[…]

Surely a new interest attaches to this summer-day song when we realize that it has pleased the human ear since the dim age of Homer. The cicada’s kettledrums are perhaps the only musical instruments now in use that have remained unchanged through a thousand centuries since they were first mentioned.

Cicada speciosa by Charles Dessalines d’Orbigny, 1861. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music as a property of the universe and this lovely vintage parable about another music-making insect, then revisit Anna Botsford Comstock’s beautiful meditation on winter trees as a portal to aliveness.

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Each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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The Most Important Thing to Remember About Your Mother

One of the hardest realizations in life, and one of the most liberating, is that our mothers are neither saints nor saviors — they are just people who, however messy or painful our childhood may have been, and however complicated the adult relationship, have loved us the best way they knew how, with the cards they were dealt and the tools they had.

It is a whole life’s work to accept this elemental fact, and a life’s triumph to accept it not with bitterness but with love.

How to make that liberating shift of perspective is what the playwright, suffragist, and psychologist Florida Scott-Maxwell (September 14, 1883–March 6, 1979) considers in a passage from her 1968 autobiography The Measure of My Days (public library).

Kinship by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

She writes:

A mother’s love for her children, even her inability to let them be, is because she is under a painful law that the life that passed through her must be brought to fruition. Even when she swallows it whole she is only acting like any frightened mother cat eating its young to keep it safe.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Kahlil Gibran’s insight into the delicate balance of intimacy and independence essential for romantic love — which is always an echo of our formative attachments — she adds:

It is not easy to give closeness and freedom, safety plus danger.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Crescendo

With a wary eye to the brunt of parental expectation under which all children live, well into adulthood, she writes:

No matter how old a mother is she watches her middle-aged children for signs of improvement. It could not be otherwise for she is impelled to know that the seeds of value sown in her have been winnowed. She never outgrows the burden of love, and to the end she carries the weight of hope for those she bore. Oddly, very oddly, she is forever surprised and even faintly wronged that her sons and daughters are just people, for many mothers hope and half expect that their newborn child will make the world better, will somehow be a redeemer. Perhaps they are right, and they can believe that the rare quality they glimpsed in the child is active in the burdened adult.

Perhaps that glimpse is what Maurice Sendak meant when he observed that life is largely a matter of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Complement with Kahlil Gibran’s advice on children, the pioneering psychologist Donald Winnicott on the mother’s contribution to society, and Alison Bechdel’s superb Winnicott-inspired Are You My Mother?, then savor My Mother’s Eyes — a soulful animated short film about loss and the unbreakable bonds of love — and Mary Gaitskill’s poignant advice on how to move through life when your parents are dying.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start NowGive Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

Need to cancel an existing donation? (It's okay — life changes course. I treasure your kindness and appreciate your support for as long as it lasted.) You can do so on this page.

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THE UNIVERSE IN VERSE BOOK

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